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Charles Webb, Elusive Author of ‘The Graduate,’ Dies at 81


Charles Richard Webb was born on June 9, 1939, in San Francisco, and grew up in Pasadena, Calif. His father, Dr. Richard Webb, was a heart specialist, part of a wealthy social circle like the one Charles would skewer in “The Graduate.” (Charles described his relationship with his father as “reasonably bad.”) His mother, Janet Farrington Webb, was, he said, a socialite and an avid reader from whom he “was always looking for crumbs of approval.” He said “The Graduate” was an attempt to win her favor; it went decidedly wrong.

A younger brother, Sidney Farrington Webb, became a doctor in Las Cruces, N.M.

Charles went to boarding school and then to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned a degree in American history and literature in 1961. He said his schools had been “chosen” for him “on the basis of how it looked.” A mediocre student, he nonetheless managed to win a two-year writing fellowship, which he used to write “The Graduate.”

While at Williams, he met Ms. Rudd, a Bennington College student. She was a former debutante from a family of teachers with a bohemian streak — her brother was the avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd — and they both rejected the bourgeois worlds of their families. Their first date, they told interviewers, was in a cemetery.

Their romance, and her mother’s disapproval of him, became the basis for “The Graduate.” The inspiration for the character Mrs. Robinson, who seduces young Benjamin, may have come from one of his parents’ friends, whom he accidentally saw naked.

Reviewing the book in The Times, Orville Prescott called it a “fictional failure” but favorably compared its protagonist to Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

With its mumbling ennui and conversations that do not connect, the novel captured the moment just before the repressed Eisenhower era blossomed into the Technicolor 1960s. The characters are not idealistic; they’re groping for ideals, their flight from their parents’ values and lifestyles more solitary than collective. In the last pages, Benjamin and Elaine are alone on a bus, shaken, heading into a future that is opaque to them. Hello darkness, my old friend.



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